No Sister, Feminism is Not About Choice

Airing a dream is to criticise and negate the opposing vision

Ah, the good old F-word. For a while, things were looking grim. All that talk about irrelevance, betrayal of the young, even death. No one but the humourless hirsute holed up in the hallowed halls of higher-education had a good word to say about her.

Now our dear old F-word is back, though the revolutionary being returned to us as a topic of decent conversation is not the gal we knew. She’s a kindler, gentler revolutionary with fewer enemies than a nun. She’s the New Feminism, a social movement that no longer causes discomfort or division by identifying female oppression or fighting to change the way the world is organised. The New Feminism speaks only in muted tones about how all women’s “choices” must be respected.

The problem with New Feminism is that social movements must actually stand for something. Barracking for one vision of the good is to be opposed to its opposite. For something to be right, fair or good, something else must (at least in theory and arguably in practice) be wrong, unfair or bad. Second wave feminists weren’t backwards about coming forward with their views that attitudes and practices when it came to paid work and the care of children discriminated and oppressed women and were therefore wrong. It was on the basis of these unambiguous moral assertions that their demands for change were founded. It was also on this basis that opposition formed amongst those who disagreed with feminist descriptions of the problem, the movement’s preferred solutions, or both.

Choice, as the forgoing should make clear, didn’t enter it. This is not to say that choice is not a legitimate part of what feminism is about in some instances. In particular, when it’s possible for everyone to have it regardless of their education level or financial resources, and when making one choice available to one person doesn’t denigrate or undermine the legitimacy of the choices made another. The freedom to choose abortion is a good example. It can be argued for without implying that women who go forward with an unplanned pregnancy, or choose motherhood at any other point in their lives, are doing the wrong thing.

Would that it were always so easy. Feminists also argued that women and men should share the work of earning and of caring. They have claimed that social attitudes, policies and practices that make it hard for women to undertake paid work and for men to care are oppressive, and ought to be changed. Note such a claim is not about preference. It’s doesn’t say “I don’t like it, so you should change it.” Rather it is an assertion that the way we currently do things is morally wrong, and that doing the right thing requires us to change.

What kinds of reasons did feminists give in support of their claim that change was required? They said it was only fair that women have the same educational and job opportunities as men, and be paid the same for the same work. They also claimed that children were harmed by men’s absence from the home (a concern now shared by the men’s movement).

Such claims were never morally innocuous nor, consequently, reducible to matters of “choice.” If discrimination against women was unjust, than those who colluded or supported such discrimination were guilty of immoral behaviour. If children suffered as a consequence of the way labour was organised, than everyone who supported such arrangements – from society, to employers, to parents who lived that way when they had the ability to do otherwise – stood condemned. “Choice” never entered it.

The old F-word was also fond of exposing the classist nature of choice. It was the feminists that everyone loved-to-hate who pointed out that under-the-garden-tree ponderings of the “should I return to work, or should I stay at home?” variety were available only to sisters whose husbands were loaded. For the rest of us (as well as for the vast majority of fathers who not only lack a decently-paid spouse but access to even the minimal parental-leave and part-time work options enjoyed by some mothers) the “choice” is academic, given the causal pairing of the stay-at-home option with the go-to-the-poorhouse one. Seen in this light, it’s clear that respect for individual choice offers few answers to most women and men struggling to solve the work/life crisis.

We’d all like to get along famously and, on a personal level, we can. At the risk of recycling the oldest cliché in the book, one of my best friends is a stay-at-home mum. With the exception of the time we tried to discuss the White Wings advert (the one in which a school-girl extolling her mother’s philosophy of home-backing everything is told by her friend that her own mother doesn’t do that because she’s “got a life.”), there’s never been a cross word between us. Politically, however, such internecine peace – between conservative and revolutionary women; between the unselfconsciously wealthy and the rest – is impossible. Impossible, that is, without real feminists neutering our vision of a better world for women so radically that it renders us little more, and little better, than patriarchs without balls.

Change requires a moral vision of the world as it should be; a vision that is, by definition, exclusionary. To state one’s dreams is to implicitly criticise and negate the opposing vision of others.

Ah politics, it’s a bitch.

Publication history

No Sister, Feminism is not about Choice  Sydney Morning Herald